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Tuesday, October 19, 2004 - Page updated at 06:15 P.M.

Phil Harper, familiar voice as radio's Harry Nile, dies at 64

By Lisa Heyamoto
Seattle Times staff reporter

Phil Harper died Monday at his Ballard home. He was 64.
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The thing about Phil Harper was, he would never cop to being a little bit famous.

But as the voice of world-weary private eye Harry Nile, Mr. Harper's "aw, c'mon, doll" drawl was a radio staple, broadcast on "The Adventures of Harry Nile" to listeners all over the nation for 27 years.

Mr. Harper died in his Ballard home on Monday from complications related to diabetes and heart disease. He was 64.

Just as Harry Nile's charm was his what-you-see-is-what-you-get Everyman quality, Mr. Harper was a talented actor and a gifted speaker who modestly denied his skills at both, said Jim French, writer and producer of the show.

"There's an element to [his voice] that to me is indescribable," he said. "First of all, he was an excellent actor, so it never sounded like he was acting. He was supposed to be an Everyman and to me, that's what he was."

Mr. Harper grew up listening to radio dramas such as "Superman" and "Bobby Benson" in his hometown of Flossmoor, Ill. Radio mysteries, detective shows, comedy and adventure dramas — to him, they all held a magic that television would never match.

He joined the Army in 1962 and was assigned to a radio station in Berlin, where he got his start as a disc jockey. He always used to say he was born 10 years too late, said his partner, Eleanor Hartmann. When he returned to the United States, he found radio drama had all but disappeared.

He worked as a disc jockey at stations in Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon before moving to Seattle in 1974, snagging a job at KING-AM playing rock 'n' roll. Right about that time, French sat down and wrote the first Adventure of Harry Nile, and Mr. Harper's most enduring role was born.

"I never considered anybody else" to play the lead, French said.

Through all 158 episodes of the show, Mr. Harper had a busy career as an announcer on several Seattle radio stations, such as KMPS-FM, and was the voice for various radio commercials. He and Hartmann even pulled a stint as Ballard restaurateurs, pulling espresso and selling the soup and bread that Mr. Harper loved to make from scratch.

For all his gregariousness on the radio, Mr. Harper led a quiet life at home, favoring books on physics and jazz musicians and walking around Green Lake with Hartmann, his partner of 12 years. He also immersed himself in innumerable craft projects, making everything from soap to stamps to stained glass in his home laboratory.

"He was really the gentlest, sweetest, most caring person I think I have ever met," Hartmann said. "Ours was a private life, and he went off and did his thing, but his public life was quite separate."

Hartmann, who had known Mr. Harper since she was a 12-year-old kid in Flossmoor, describes him with the affectionate detail of someone who knows her partner's motivations, his personality quirks and every one of his jokes. She keeps a series of photos of Mr. Harper telling one of his many favorite jokes, his demeanor growing more delighted with the telling, while she wears the indulgent expression of someone who's heard this one before.

"His humor was really self-deprecating," she said. "He was very good at using humor to make things pleasant."

Radio, she said, was the perfect outlet for a guy with a sense of humor, a great voice and a passion for the medium he had loved as a kid. As he wrote in his short biography on

"I'm grateful beyond imagination to be cast as a continuing character in a radio drama. ... My fantasy is that 300 years from now, when the station which plays the real oldies talks about the 'Golden Age of Radio' they'll play an old Harry Nile episode, and each of my descendants will receive 7/16th of a New Ruble."

Besides Hartmann and her family, Mr. Harper is survived by two sons, Geoff and Matthew Harper of Seattle, and his former wife, Judith Klos Harper.

At his request, there will be no memorial service, but there will be opportunities to hear him as Harry Nile. The show will be broadcast tonight at 9 p.m. on KIXI-AM (880) and a tribute show will air Saturday at 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. on XM Satellite Radio station.

Lisa Heyamoto: 206-464-2149 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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